A couple months ago, I was vacationing on a private farm in northwestern PA and had the chance to speak with Jeff Finch, a Master Falconer and former President of the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust. He had recently acquired a new raptor, Wakiya, who is one of the coolest looking birds I’ve ever seen. (That’s her beautiful, lethal looking face to the left, but there are more pics of her on my Facebook page in the album “Amazing White Mutant Red Tailed Hawk.”)
I was so taken with Wakiya’s grace and beauty — not to mention the whole mystery of raptors and what it’s like to have and hunt with one — that I sat down with Jeff and asked him a few questions about what it’s like to be a falconer. An excerpt of our talk is posted below. (The full interview is posted under the Notes section of my Facebook page).
Who’s a pretty girl?
Wakiya is a Native American word that means “thundering wings” or “thunderbird.” According to web sources, Wakiya was the Guardian Spirit of Thunder and Lightning. He was created by Zenith, the very first Beast King, who was the most powerful Guardian in the world. According to North American legends, the Wakiya thunderbird has horns and teeth not unlike a demon, creates massive storms with its immense wings, and shoots lightning from its eyes. In short, this is not a beast you want to get on the bad side of. Jeff named his female raptor after this fierce male Native American spirit because she’s one of the toughest looking birds around.
Powerful Birds of Prey
JA: How powerful are raptors? What sort of damage can these birds do? What’s the danger to you, if any?
JF: They have amazing foot strength, and at the end of their feet are needles, so that “pounds per square inch” pressure calculation is just… astronomical. They can penetrate bone. They can go through your hand — in one side and out the other. They could (although I’ve never seen it happen) gouge your eyes out. When you first catch them, they’re fearful. But their instinct is to get away from you, not attack you.
JA: What’s the worst injury you’ve sustained?
JF: I got a talon through my lip, which went into my gum and out through the side of my nose.
JA: What is the scariest thing you’ve ever experienced as a falconer?
JF: I once had a bird that was killed by another bird. It’s the only bird I ever had that died on me. It was a fluke. There was a little gap between these two areas where the birds were being housed. Only a three quarter inch space and I thought, “What can happen through that?” Well, one bird saw movement through that space and went and clung to the frame there and the other bird shot its foot through and stabbed it in the neck with its talon.
JA: Was that just a lucky shot?
JF: Well, they’re not tolerant of each other. They will try to kill one another. That was awful. Maybe not scary, but awful.
JA: What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever experienced as a falconer?
JF: There was one thing that happened that was hysterical — if you’re not the guy that it happened to. Wakiya, as I mentioned, is not exactly the ideal hunting bird.
Wakiya’s strong and she’s pretty, but she thinks humans are, as Jeff puts it, “meat buttons” because he rescued her at an age when she was too young to be ideally trained. So Jeff only hunts her with experienced falconers so they know what to watch for.
JF: Once Wakiya starts getting bored or if you’re not producing game, you have to watch her. If you stick your hands in your pockets (a bad habit I allowed her to pick up), she thinks you’re reaching for food. So I tell the guys I hunt with not to reach into their pockets around her. Well, this guy’s cell phone rings and he goes to reach into his back pocket… I’m yelling, but it’s too late… she’s already coming for him… and she latches right onto his ass.
Jeff’s not joking. Needless to say, I am horrified.
“Did she get her talons in him?” I ask, and then I can’t resist. “That gives new meaning to ‘Pain in the Ass,’ huh?” 😀
So, what about you? Are you as fascinated by this sport as I am? Do you think Wakiya’s as pretty as I do? Historical or fantasy authors: I don’t know about you, but I think Wakiya makes excellent inspiration for a lethal beasty — all ghostly white, stealthily silent, and deadly beautiful. Jeff, thanks for sharing your remarkable bird with us!!!